We don't need no stinkin' unified message

T.A. Barnhart

WTF is wrong with us Dems?

Times should be great for the Democratic party.  Bush's poll numbers are re-enacting the last hours of the Titanic.  Turd Blossom no longer seems to be able spin his black magic, perhaps because he is preparing to be indicted by Patrick Fitzhugh for his role in the Valerie Plame affair.  Duke Cunningham has gone to prison (and golly, why can I never stop thinking of the great line from "Office Space"?) and we can see the line of Republican henchmen and operatives lining up to follow him, including the chief villian of 2000, Katherine Harris (she handled the disenfranchising of Democrats far better than she took bribes).  America no longer supports the war and may even be understanding what a bad idea it is to burdening the future with trillions of dollars in debt so that today's wealthy can get even richer.  In short, virtually every issue is turning the way of the Democrats.  We should be circling the Rs like sharks smelling blood in the water.

Instead, what do we do?  We circle around — nothing.  We stand in a circle telling each other, "We don't stand for anything."  We look at all the different issues of concern and whine, "We don't have a unified message."  We read the editorials in the MSM about how the Democratic Party nationally has no "theme" to match Gingrich's bogus "Contract for/on America."  We echo this idea over and over and over.  Who are we? we ponder, tears welling in our eyes.  How can we win without a Unified Message? 

What a stupid way to spend our time.  Where is it written that the only way to win an election is with a unified national message?  The Republicans had no such thing; E.J. Dionne, in a recent Washington Post, points out that the Contract actually had a tiny role in 1994's GOP victories.  The right has not had a unified message for the past 25 years beyond "Big government is bad," and they've done nothing but grow government.  They've promoted tax reform, hatred of gays, war, greed, gimme-gimme-ism, but the only over-arching theme has been the last one: gimme-gimme.  The only unified message I recall from the 90s is how much they hated Clinton.  What we now mistake for a unified message was the gagging of any voices not spewing the centralized Talking Points.  The lack of diversity is not unity: it's fascism.

Why are we buying this idea that we need a unified message?  What unified message can the Democrats possibly hope to find beyond "Bush is bad"?  How do we Democrats in Oregon and Washington agree with those in Alabama or Kansas on what that message is?  What do we have in common with Dems in South Dakota who argue that the middle ground on choice is allowing exceptions in the case of rape?  We are not a unified party, we never have been, and we never will be.  We are a diverse party because we represent the broad spectrum of America's beliefs, needs and circumstances.  We need a unified message the way Bush needs a subscription to the Book of the Month Club.

Elections are never won nationally.  Elections are won locally.  For decades, surveys have shown that Americans have a very low regard for Congress but they consistently re-elect their own representatives.  All the eastern Oregon anti-government types have no problem sending Waldenbush (there ya go, Chuck) back to Congress year after year; he's good enough for them even if they can't stand the other four members of the delegation.  Thing is, they don't vote for the other four members.  They don't vote for California's representatives, or Montana's, or Florida's.  They vote for District 2 and nothing else.  They may cast an eye nationally, but in the end, they vote for their guy.  The national mood may play some role in their thought processes, but in the end, they vote locally.

So Dems, give up this idea of a unified message.  It's another red herring thrown out by people like the DLC and the profit-driven MSM (for godsake, we should take political advice from Chris Matthews?).  If you want to take back the Oregon House or the United States Senate, there's just one way to do it:  Win your local election.  You get one vote, and one vote only (although I'm sure Rove is working on ways to get around that for 2008).  Find the message that wins the elections at home.  The message that wins for Sara Gelser or Peter DeFazio probably won't do a Mississippi Democrat much good.  The unified message meme is a diversion, a taunt from the right we must ignore.  We don't need a unified message; we need a unity of purpose.  So what if CNN can't sum up the party in eight words or less?  If Dems stand together to end war, build prosperity for all, divert money from Halliburton to schools and infrastructure, defend civil rights, support labor, protect the environment — in short, work together on the multitude of vital issues that ensure we will be forever diverse — then we will have all the unity we need.  We won't have a bumpersticker, but we will get back our country.

  • Abby NORML (unverified)

    I don't think it's a peculiarly Dem problem. In my simplistic world view it goes back to Reagan's victory over Carter. Carter was a rationalist and was moving to extend EEOC protections to the point that you wouldn't be able to hire a secretary with a typing test, without data to support the relationship.

    Reagan immediately championed anything that didn't sound competancy based, preferring litmus tests, most notably his desire for universal drug testing.

    After 25 years almost everyone finds themselves in a job that they're not competant to perform, burdened by huge amounts of consumer debt. So they do nothing. It's safest. Gotta pay the bills. I'd bet that if you went through and quantified BO posts on a status quo vs. progressive evaluation, and correlated that score with the ratio between the person's debt and income, you'd account for 80% of the variance in positions, left, middle and right. Alternatively, just who would be your example of someone/group that has their act together in this country?

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    I don't know what you are reacting to, but there is only ONE race for the US Congress where we have a seat currently filled by a Republican. That race has brought forth FOUR Democrats to run for the office here in the Second Congressional District.

    In that race the 20 or so Counties involved are each planning to have a candidates forum before the Primary, and nearly every date is already set and ready. We are getting more press here locally (Crook Co.) than we have gotten for a local political event since 1992 when Sen. Joe Biden was in town campaigning for Clinton.

    We have a grassroots campaign in swing to make the primary interesting, to be a forum where we pull the sheets off of Walden's anti-rural, anti-district, and anti-Oregon voting record; and to give hope that we can do something different. Whoever wins the primary will have significant forward momentum for the fall. The local County Committees are involved like this was a Presidential race. Walden may have some money, but he has nothing on the ground to compare with what is in place on the other side.

    Local! Darn right! We will give Waldenbush hell!

    And frankly, it doesn't matter what is going on with the Democratic Party inside the Beltway. What matters is what is happening in the Second CD. You can't say one thing and vote the other, over and over, and not end up being held accountable at home - especially when it hurts the home front like Walden's voting records shows.

    This election reminds me of one in the Second Congressional District that happened back when I lived in the Oregon City area, and it was still part of the District. Our long time Democrat was overturned by an upstart from the far eastern part of the District because he didn't attend to what his votes and proposals meant at home. It's time for Walden to go, and he will.

  • Jay Bozievich (unverified)


    Did you see Barrone's latest column on the US House elections?


    Little or no change expected...demographics and the power of encumbancy rules!

    You are correct, a unified message is not needed to win, just the right jerrymandered district.

  • Chuck Butcher (unverified)

    TA has something, the media message that the Democrats have no unified message is getting tired. Last I noticed, economic and social justice was still the Democratic message. Now I sure don't intend to run a 2nd CD campaign based on DC wisdom, I'm real sure they know exactly how to lose out here. I don't have to be Republican lite to win, and I have no desire to be something that I'm not in order to win an election or after winning an election. I don't think waldenbush became something different in DC, he just became more of what he already was.

    The 2nd CD Democratic Chairs and County Parties have done something darn near incredible, in less than 1 month they've put together a heck of a program and coordinatted with 4 candidates. However this works out, these folks have my vote of gratitude.

    oops, almost forgot - Money and volunteers are gratefully received, this takes a boatload of gasoline and time... (requisite impoverished campaign plea)

    Thanks, Chuck

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    thanks, Jay (and here's the article in easy to click form). i like the strong word of caution; poll-induced euphoria tends to bite you in the ass (cf: Kerry & Ohio 2004). what Barone makes clear is that we can win the House, but it's going to take a lot of hard work and a lot of things going right.

    maybe getting close will be good enough. imagine being within 5 votes; imagine needing only 5 Rs to cross that line to stop Hastert & Frist from some form of nastiness. or 5 very scared Rs knowing that impeachment hearings must begin. and then in 2008 we push over the threshold. i mean, i'd rather take both houses this year (and send about a dozen people to prison), but i'll take strong movement in the right direction.

  • LT (unverified)

    Chuck and Steve are really onto something. I have friends who have gotten fed up and left Democratic politics for Indep. or 3rd party long before Westlund made that even more attractive (I've been there myself for awhile although now registered D). I sent an email to some friends about this topic and got an interesting response from a friend I met at a Dem. State Central Comm. meeting more than 20 years ago:

    "As Will Rodgers said, "All politics is apple sauce" -- what he meant was it's local and homemade. I left major pary politics because "somebody else" took over. Who? In my case it was then professional campaign agents (you know who they are) who became the pundits for the Demo party in Oregon and have as a result lost the message ,the center and the meaning of the Democratic party. "

    Which is the same message some of us have been preaching here for awhile to the annoyance of some people. Candidates and voters who are actually living in a district (Chuck and Steve in 2nd Cong. Dist. for instance) understand that district better than anyone outside the district. I don't care if someone has won 10 awards for best political consultant of the year--doesn't mean they understand a district they don't live in.

    Oregon Democrats have the chance to take over the Oregon House if they realize that candidates who win usually match the district. Peter Buckley of Ashland might not win in Crook County. Members from the Will. Valley might not win on the Coast. Betty Komp of N. Marion County probably wouldn't do any better in a Portland district than a Portlander would do in N. Marion County. Etc.

    If we just realize that and have candidates listen to local voters and talk about what is important to them (regardless of what consultants think of it) we have the chance to do very well at all levels. Esp. if our candidates interact with actual voters instead of just bombarding them with ads and ignoring the power of dialogue.

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    Read 'Crashing The Gates' by authors Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong of Daily Kos and My DD. It's a book that explains how the Democratic Party must change.

  • BlueNote (unverified)

    I agree local issues decide most local and state elections, but your article fails to recognize the huge impact that the "Contract with America" had on the 1994 mid-term elections. For better or worse, the Republicans use of that unified message enabled them to take control of the US House for the first time in 40 years, and unseated a lot of good Dems. A lot of people, including me, believe that it would take a similar unified message for the Dems to regain control of the House in 2006. I agree that Dems in Mississippi don't want to talk about gay rights or reproductive choice, but are there not some core values that we Dems all share? If not, why are we bothering to operate within the same party?

  • LT (unverified)

    Bluenote: There has been considerable reporting on the history of the CONTRACT recently. It was not written in March of 1994, but in the fall. It wasn't a radical departure from what Republicans believed. It was a poll tested list of promises so they could have a big rah rah event to sign it. They made a big push to vote on all that stuff after they were all sworn in Jan. 2005--how much passed, how much still in effect? Remember there was a time when every Republican carried the text of the 10th Amendment they could whip out of a pocket, read it, and talk about states rights. Until, of course, states like Oregon passed ballot measures that crowd didn't like (Oregon's Death with Dignity, for instance) and then it turned out they meant "states rights for the things we agree with".). Given that history, would a Democratic Contract have the same effect or look like a stolen idea whose time had passed?

    How much of that victory was disgust at the House Banking Scandal and that the Dem. majority had gotten out of touch with people? Might they have won without the CONTRACT? Quite possibly.

    And you need to realize that it wasn't a magic wand. Some of those elections (like Oregon's 5th Cong. Dist.) were not won by 9 or 10 pm on election night but were decided later (one definition of close election). How many of those 1994 winners were re-elected in 1996? And how many 1994 winners (like Zach Wamp) remain at all true to their roots?

    How many people would be suspicious that a Dem. "contract" might turn out like the 1994 one did--they got the majority and immediately set those like DeLay to the task of concentrating power?

    Heard on KPOJ AM 620 this morning (haven't yet looked it up) that Lisa Grove is in this week's Willamette Week saying Democrats ought to act like Democrats and not be Republican-lite. Wasn't she part of the effort that elected Ron Wyden over Gordon Smith? The only "gimmick" in that race was going 100% positive and having the January ice cream socials where Ron stood up in front of a group for an hour and answered questions to roomfuls of people.

    I realize there are consultants who don't support such an old fashioned approach. But ask yourself which 1996 Senate campaign was more successful--Wyden in January or the consultant driven 3 slogan Tom Bruggere campaign in the regular Senate election, the one which elected Gordon Smith.

    I think 2-way (dialogue between candidates and voters) campaigns are more effective than 1-way campaigns (ad nauseum ads which say "vote Democratic because..." but there is no interchange between politicians and voters). As I recall, the folks at the Oregon Bus Project (if you want a set of values, why not the BUS set of E's like Education, Environment, 'Ealth Care ?) have statistics on how in a time of information overload (there was no Internet for ordinary people in 1994) face to face contact is highly effective.

    I have fought for that 2-way campaign position strongly for the last decade or more. No one will convince me that Democrats win by being Republican-lite and preaching at voters. Which is why I love TA's post.

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    About that send CD...........My wife was invited up to Wasco County last night to speak about progressive small business issues, and I went along as a Roadie. Teresa Hepker, Wasco County Chair was singing the praises of Bend's Pat Ackley for her hard work organizing these candidate forums and coordination of same with the candidates.

    So, compliments to the candidates and a big Thanks to Bend Chair Pat Ackley.

    "All politics is local"---Tip O'Neill

  • Ross Williams (unverified)


    "Three contract proposals became law: the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 (Pub. L. No. 104-1, 109 Stat. 3), which requires Congress to follow eleven workplace laws; the Unfunded Mandate Reform Act of 1995 (Pub. L. No. 104-4, 109 Stat. 48), which restricts Congress from imposing mandates on states that are not adequately funded; and the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 (Pub. L. No. 104-13, 109 Stat. 163), which reduces federal paperwork requirements."

    Truly earth-shaking.

  • LT (unverified)

    OK, Ross, but does NCLB in any way violate those 2nd two?

    Or has NCLB been revenue neutral (not unfunded mandate ) on states, and is there no more paperwork burden now than before NCLB?

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    and not to shatter anyone's illusions, the PRA has been more or less ignored at all levels of government. the paper used by federal printers & copiers has to make Mark Rey very hopeful for the future.

  • R. Fiorella (unverified)

    For once a democrat with sense. Democrats should be throwing the "unified message" criticism right back in the right's faces. The democratic party has always been a party of diversity. Debate and discourse is what made this country great. A unified party line stiffles debate and polarizes the country into us and them. Demoracts should celebrate their diverse stances and when the media and Republicans lable the dems as scattered and 'all over the map', snap back that this is the great thing about democrats. We all have different opinions and through dynamic, open, true debate the most sensible opinions will win and laws will truly reflect what is right and not what a few party bosses feel is the in thier best interest, as the Rebublicans have been douing for the past 12 years.

  • linabella (unverified)

    It may not fit on a bumper sticker, but this sounds like a unified message to me:

    italic"If Dems stand together to end war, build prosperity for all, divert money from Halliburton to schools and infrastructure, defend civil rights, support labor, protect the environment — in short, work together on the multitude of vital issues that ensure we will be forever diverse. . ."


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